Marissa Mayer Is No Fool

Harvard Business Review

Who do Yahoo's "work@home" telecommuting champions think they're kidding? Marissa Mayer is no fool. She didn't take over as Yahoo's CEO because the company was doing well; she came on board because the stumbling Internet enterprise was an underperforming underachiever that had lost its way.

So when Mayer decrees seven months into the job that she wants people to, you know, physically show up at work instead of telecommuting — or else — I'm pretty confident this reflects a data-driven decision more than a cavalier command. In all likelihood, Mayer has taken good, hard looks at Yahoo's top 250 performers and top 20 projects and come to her own conclusions about who's creating real value — and how — in her company. She knows who her best people are.

Let's be serious: if significant portions of Yahoo top performers were "stay@home" coders, testers and project management telecommuters, do people really think Mayer would arbitrarily issue edicts guaranteed to alienate them? It's possible. But that would imply Mayer hasn't learned very much about her company's best people, best performers and culture since joining last July. Most successful technical leaders I know avoid getting in the way of their best people's productivity. But what do leaders do when even very good people aren't being as productive as you want or need them to be? Challenging them to be better onsite collaborators hardly seems either unfair or irrational.

The logical inference to draw from Mayer's action is that she strongly believes Yahoo's current "stay@home" telecommuting crowd would be significantly more valuable to the company — organizationally, operationally and culturally — if they came to work. The crueler inference is that both the real and opportunity costs imposed by Yahoo's "work@homes" greatly exceeded their technical and economic contributions. My bet is that Mayer believes that "working@home" isn't working for Yahoo — in both meanings of that phrase.

Again, why should this surprise? Flailing companies shouldn't invest more in what's not working. The (far) more interesting counterfactual would have been a leaked memo declaring that telecommuters and virtual teams were — by far — the most agile, innovative and productive performers at Yahoo. Therefore the company would delayer its headquarters and remake itself as a virtual networked enterprise. If that had been true, Mayer would have been a different kind of teleworkplace revolutionary.

Then again, Mayer's Google background (and impact) suggested that she was predisposed to consider physical (co)presence as essential to digital innovation success as computational/design brilliance. After all, one key reason why Google invested so heavily in providing world-class victuals and dining experiences at the Googleplex for its employees wasn't health food benevolence, it was to keep people on campus working together. Google explicitly encourages and designs for onsite collaboration. Why would Mayer minimize what she had experienced as a critical success factor?

In fairness, critics such as Virgin's Richard Branson are not wrong when they assert the cultural issues here are arguably as much a matter of trust than facilitating collaboration. But trust cuts both ways. If a CEO authentically concludes that too many "work@homes" have not lived up to their side of the productivity relationship, then the call to return to the workplace could be interpreted as an invitation to rebuild trust. (That's nicer than simply firing them.)

Culture matters. Ultimately, turnaround CEOs have to make the very public choice around not just how best to empower people but how best to hold them accountable. I take Mayer at her word that she wants to promote the values of "collaborative opportunism" and "opportunistic collaboration" at the "new" Yahoo. That should be a leader's prerogative. I similarly don't doubt Mayer knows full well that there's no shortage of technology enabling high bandwidth, highly functional, high impact collaboration across time zones and zip codes alike. My bet is that, sooner rather than later, the truly productive/high impact employees with special needs will enjoy a locational flexibility that their lesser will not.

But, for the moment, this CEO has done what I always thought good CEOs were supposed to do: identify unproductive "business as usual" practices, declare them unacceptable and incompatible with her cultural aspirations for the firm — and then act. I completely understand why it makes so many employees unhappy. I'm sympathetic to the changes they're being told to make. But, on this issue for this company, my deeper sympathies belong to the CEO.

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